Interactive Fiction · Resources

Parser-based Interactive Fiction: A Primer

I have been using game writing and narrative design for 10 years now; all this time, I’ve had students making parser-based interactive fiction games (a.k.a. text adventure games).  One of the biggest challenges is for students to understand how these games work – they’re not a mainstream commercial genre any more. But I keep them on my syllabus because this genre teaches the foundations of story-driven games very well: how to tell stories through objects, establishing interactions, basic dialogue systems and AI for characters. On top of this the rise of intelligent agents like Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana — all of these parse spoken input instead of written. Turns out that this old-fashioned type of games still have a lot to teach us.
So my main hurdle is how to get students to play parser-based interactive fiction. The nice thing about the format is that there is so much out there that there’s a game for everyone. In the past, I used the collection put together by my friends at the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction. It’s an exquisite selection, but there’s not a lot. My introduction to parser-based contemporary interactive fiction was a wide list of works, and I just picked and chose whatever sounded interesting. So I decided to make a larger, updated selection, so my students could find whatever they’re interested in. This list is not a canon – I’m not a fan of canons – but an invitation to find one’s own way into the world of parser-based interactive fiction.
What follows is a primer to understand the conventions of interactive fiction, alongside a collection of games to pick and choose from.

How to play Interactive Fiction

Interactive fiction (IF from now on) starts with text and then invites you to type what you want to do. The commands follow specific conventions, so you have to learn those first. Start by having a look at this quick cheatsheet. If you need more details, this old guide is still very handy.
There’s several ways in which you can play IF. You can do it on your browser directly – most of the links below include a link to a browser version of the game. Games can be as short as 30 seconds to more than an hour. For longer games, you may want to play them on your computer or even your phone to be able to save your game. In order to do that, you need to run an interactive fiction interpreter, which is a program that loads the game and plays it on the platform of your choice. The most reliable interpreter for modern platforms is Andrew Plotkin’s Lectrote.
One nice thing about IF is that If you want to play games on your phone or tablet while huddling under a blanket, you can! There’s interpreters for Android (Hunky Punk,
Some of the games require to draw a map if you want to know where you are. So be sure to have pen and paper at hand to take notes.

The Interactive Fiction Collection

These are some recommended games, grouped in different categories to fit a variety of interests. You don’t need to play them all, though I’d start with the ones on top of the list and then explore the rest of the list based on your interests. Enjoy!
Beginners
Experimental

It’s better to play these once one’s familiar with IF.

Fractured Fairytales

These are Emily Short’s games based on traditional fairytales.

Lovecraft

For some reason, all of the horror games that ended up in this collection are based / inspired by Lovecraft.

Science Fiction / Fantasy
Mystery
Puzzle-lite
Wordplay
Weird and Wonderful

(a.k.a. Andrew Plotkin does his thing)

Advertisements
Interactive Fiction · Narrative Design · Resources

Taxonomy of Narrative Choices

A few years ago, I realized that in order to teach narrative choice design I needed a classification of types of choices. Creating games in the style of choose-your-own adventure, in the style of Choice of Games, Inkle Studios, Failbetter Games, the sadly defunct Telltale Games, or for interactive film, requires having a vocabulary that refers to the different ways in which choices can be expressive.

I came up with my own taxonomy, which I have been teaching in different iterations over the years. Inspired by works like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, I finally realized it’d be best to illustrate the taxonomy interactively, on top of discussing examples in the class. You can read/play the taxonomy on my itch.io page.

This taxonomy is part of a larger lecture, which is the introduction to narrative choice design in my classes. While games may be a series of interesting choices, they also become much more complicated when we make those decisions be part of a longer narrative. One of the reasons why making choices can be compelling is that players can see the consequences of their decisions—that is the foundation of agency, one of the pleasures of digital media as defined by Janet Murray. We like feeling that the game is listening to us, that we are in control of our actions in the game, that our choices matter.

Challenging agency, however, also has a lot of expressive possibilities. First of all, players can have the illusion of agency without having to change the content of the game. If you’ve played any of the choice-based Telltale games, you have probably seen the caption “So-and-so will remember that” after making a decision. Most of the time, it turns out they won’t—but the player can believe that their action had an effect on someone. It is a way to use the player’s perception and imagination in order to fill the gaps and not having to expand on the content.

Frustrating the player, taking away agency, can also be expressive. Games have the annoying tendency to become “entitlement simulators” ; game designers should challenge players to make difficult, painful decisions, have them realize that the world may not revolve around them, and that there may be problems that are beyond their control. Untethered agency can be problematic in dating sims, for example—boiling down intimate relationships to choosing the right things to say oversimplifies how humans connect with each other. Representing love as having agency over a person, or being able to “win” them by achieving a score, can reinforce certain unhealthy ideas about relationships, and push players down the brink of toxicity

The taxonomy I propose is therefore a breakdown of the different ways in which undermining agency can be expressive, and can help players think about what they do. (Maybe.)

combinatorics explosion.001

Using different types of choices is also a healthy way to keep projects under scope. As the image shows, if for every decision the player makes the story bifurcates, the content multiplies very fast. In order to write a choose-your-own-adventure story where each version is only four pages long, and only gives two choices to the player on each page, we  would have to write fifteen (15) pages. It is not very efficient and the combinatorial explosion goes out of control very fast. There are also models of different structures that both provide players with interesting choices without having to generate inordinate amounts of content—Sam Kabo Ashwell provides one of my favourite classifications on his blog.

Last but not least, a lot of what went into the taxonomy and my original lecture comes from the lessons I learned from working  in my classes with ChoiceScript by Choice of games (check out their game design blog posts if you’re interested in the topic).

 

Detectives · Papers · Resources

Game Narrative Through the Detective Lens

At this year’s DiGRA conference, I gave an overview of my work of the last few years on detective stories and games.

Here’s the abstract:

The paper examines detective games as a corpus to understand the relationship between gameplay and storytelling in games. Detective fiction is a narrative genre that is already playful by teasing the reader to figure out the solution to the mystery before they get to the end. By exploring the narrative nature of detective games, how detective stories have been turned into games (digital and non-digital), and how genre expectations and conventions shape gameplay, we can gain a better understanding of the integration between gameplay and narrative. Contradictory as it may sound, this paper uses inductive methods to infer general approaches to game narrative by concentrating on a specific corpus of stories and games. It is not within the scope of this paper to cover all aspects of game narrative, nor go into all the implications deriving from the comparison. Rather, this paper will be limited exploring two key aspects to demonstrate the kinds of insight that we can gain through this method.

The slides of the presentation, including references to my sources and my own work, are here: DiGRA 2018 – Game Narrative through the Detective Lens

Adventure Games · Interactive Fiction · Resources

Tools to make narrative games

Since I have to keep up with a variety of tools for narrative games and interactive narrative, I have decided to share the list of resources that I keep. This post will be a living document, so I will update as I come across new tools.
If you have any suggestions for resources that should be included, please contact me.

Tools

Twine 1+2

Twine is one of the most popular tools to write hypertext fiction; it creates HTML files that can are easy to share online. It is very accessible and has a large of community and plenty of resources and tutorials. Very recommendable for beginners; knowing how to use CSS styles and basic programming can also go a long way.

ChoiceScript

A programming language developed by Choice of Games to create multiple-choice games, as a Choose Your Own Adventure electronic book. Don’t feel intimidated by it being a programming language: it’s based on javascript, and it’s very easy to use and get started, as long as you keep your indentations in the text consistent.

Inform 7

One of the most veteran tools for making narrative games, in this case parser-based text games (the kind where the player talks to the computer to make games). Inform 7 uses a language that uses sentences in English, which may take some time to get used to. It is also a design suite that packs the editor, compiler and interpreter all in one. I recommend it as a starting point to anyone who wants to create narrative games, because it teaches how to think stories as simulated worlds rather than branching plots. A very strong community of developers, as well as a variety of tutorials and resources makes this another good starting tool for newcomers.

Texture

An interactive fiction authoring tool online, that presents itself as an option between Twine and Inform. The interaction consists of drag-and-drop words on top of other words, rather than typing or choosing a hyperlink, which makes the results easily playable on a browser. It also allows integrating images into your game; the development focuses on writing, and provides easy menus to create conditional text – it is easy to use if you don’t feel comfortable programming. It’s all online, so your work is saved in your cache; the tool allows you to have a user account so that your work in saved on a server. A good fit for short games for mobile platforms.

Texture Home Page

Fungus

For those of you familiar with Unity (whose personal use version is free, although it’s still a proprietary tool) , it’s a free plug-in to make visual novels, although it can be easily repurposed to include branching dialogue into any Unity game.

Ink and Inky

Ink is the scripting language developed by Inkle Studios to write choice-based games, whereas Inky is the editor to create the text. It is a mark-up language, not very dissimilar from Choicescript above, although in order to release it as a game it needs Unity. So you still need to know how to use Unity in order to make a game. It’s open source.

Yarn – Dialogue Editor for Unity

A dialogue editor created as a tool for Night in the Woods as well as its companion games, the texts generated with it have to be exported to Unity. The developers acknowledge they are inspired by the Twine interface, and the program does import Twine files. Requires some programming chops to set up and connect to Unity.

Chatmapper

A proprietary standalone dialogue mapping editor. The trial version can be used to prototype conversation trees. The paid version allows creating dialogue simulations including visual and audio assets, provides visualization tools of different branching, and even generates scripts for voice actors, which can also facilitate localization. Uses LUA as a programming language, and exports to a variety of formats that can then be plugged into your engine of choice (XML, JSON, RTF, PDF, JPEG, Excel). May be best for larger projects with a lot of dialogue and audiovisuals – and also developers who have an actual budget.

Ren’Py

A visual novel engine that has been around since 2004, so that there is a large community of support as well as tutorials. Uses Python, one of the most accessible programming languages, it is also open source. One of its most attractive features is that it creates games that run both on desktop computers as well as mobile.

Adventure Game Studio (AGS)

A tool to make point-and-click adventure games. Initially created to make games in the style of the Sierra adventure games (e.g. King’s Quest), it expanded to other formats and allows developers to create their own style of adventure games. A classic tool that is now open source, counts with a good community and extensive resources developed over 20 years of its existence. On the downside, it is a Windows-only program, and requires special wrappers in order to release games for other program.

Visionaire

A proprietary tool to make point-and-click adventure games, which means that the support mainly comes from the company rather than a community. There is a free demo version that allows making games with up to 10 rooms; the indie version for a single user is not too expensive. It uses LUA as a programming language; the documentation is up to date if you speak German, but it is a bit behind in its English version.

RPG Maker

A proprietary tool to make Japanese-style role-playing games; it is pretty powerful and also has an extensive community because it has been around for a long time. The games use tile-based art, which facilitates both making visual assets as well as finding pre-made ones. It can also be used to make adventure games.

Adventure Creator for Unity

Another plug-in for Unity, also proprietary. It is a toolkit to make both 2D and 3D point-and-click adventure games. It uses visual scripting, which is a bit more accessible to non-programmers, and comes with a collection of pre-set templates to create inventories, branching dialogue, and object interactions. There is a growing community of developers.

articy:draft3

A proprietary tool that can be customized for a variety of engines. Probably best tailored for large games, it allows mapping your story and its logics, keeping databases of objects, imports screenplay files from Final Draft, and connects directly to Unity. The developer also offers cloud services to allow for collaborative writing for games. It’s a tool that is becoming popular in the professional scene, though probably the most expensive all of the proprietary tools listed here so far.
The Gamebook Authoring Tool
Another proprietary tool, it is designed to make Choose-Your-Own-Adventure games, but also works to write books.

Experimental tools
I’ve been receiving links to additional tools – some of them are experimental, some of them are still in the works. I’m sharing them here for you to try – and please report back if there’s one you particularly like!

Update 6 January 2018: Added articy:draft and Texture (Thanks to Evan Skolnick and Sarah Schoemann for the pointers)

Update 25 January 2018: Started section on experimental tools and included a couple of links that I received over email. Thanks to Jeff and Daniel for sending me their engines!

Thoughts

Tea and a videogame

Working at coffeeshocup-mug-tea-bokeh-56861ps is a relatively new thing for me. I see coffee shops as social spaces, where I meet people and have some tea and maybe a snack. (I’m not quite a coffee person.) But since my schedule has got impossibly busy over the years, I’ve learned to find a nook to work on focused tasks helps be more efficient and a bit less stressed.

So I was working at the tea shop the other day, and a woman sat next to me with her tea and The New York Times. And it struck me – some people get some alone leisure time by going out and finding a place to solve crosswords.  Being a videogame person, I had to ask on Twitter, as onedoes, whether other people went to play videogames to the coffeeshop.

I received a fair amount of responses, though nothing to call them strong evidence. There were story-driven games like Firewatch, Kentucky Route Zero, 80 Days; one person played Zelda: Breath of the

 Wild. There were casual games like Clash Royale or Plants vs. Zombies, including time-management games like Diner Dash. There was also room for sophisticated puzzle games like Beglitched. Farming simulation games such as Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, get several mentions. One person mentions turn-based strategy games, which seems to fit the environment. All these games are single-player, mostly on mobile (I’ll count the Nintendo Switch as such) but some were played on a laptop.

The responses in the thread confirmed my suspicion that the kinds of games that one would play in the coffee shop are similar to bringing a book, a crossword, or any similar kind of puzzle (sudoku, nonograms). The idea is to abscond to spend some time alone with a story, or with a challenge that may requires a certain amount of focus — let’s say that Beglitched can be the videogame equivalent of the Saturday crossword of the New York times. Being offline also seems important. I don’t quite see people playing first-person shooters or MOBAs at the coffee shop – although I’m sure some people do – just because it’s very easy to get passionate and loud while you’re fighting, and you need a reliable connection to play online.

There are other social spaces to play other genres – there are board game cafes, there used to be cybercafes in the 90s with LANs to play first-person shooters. Perhaps there’s a business model for a coffee shop that organizesmulti-player events and competitions. But when it comes to going to a coffee shop, for you and your game, stories, puzzles, and turn-base strategy go well with a cuppa. Or coffee.

Game Analysis · News and Events

Book Announcement: Introduction to Game Analysis

I am happy to announce that my book Introduction to Game Analysis, is now available.

Introduction to Game Analysis book cover

My goal is to provide a book to guide the reader through what it means to analyze games and gain insight into the relationship between players and games, the formal aspects of games, and their social and cultural impact. One of the driving forces of this book is to bridge the gap between scholars in a variety of humanities fields (literature, film, history, journalism) and game studies, so they can be able to bring their field to games, but also understand the particularities and challenges of analyzing games. 

The method I propose is to identify a series of basic building blocks that are common to a variety of game analyses, divided into three areas (context, content and reception). Then the book covers a sample of models out of the many possible (journalistic review, historical analysis, illustrating a theory, personal account, and game communities).

The book is available directly from Routledge, as well as Amazon; you can also order it at your local retailer. If you are a teacher at an academic institution, you can also contact the publisher to get a review copy

Thoughts

Game Educator’s Rant 2013: The Telltale Job Ad

This year I was invited to take part at the Game Educators’ Rant at GDC. The topic I chose was rather close to my heart, as a humanities scholar looking for a game studies / game design job who wades through faculty job ads. So here are my thoughts on how game faculty job ads tell us a lot about what is wrong with games education and the games industry in general.

I must thank Michael Mateas for inviting me to be rant in illustrious company, as well as Mia Consalvo, Jesper Juul, Michael Jakobsson, Konstantin Mitgutsch, TL Taylor, and Matt Weise for their input while writing the rant. Here’s the text.

Let me tell you a story.

A school dean hears that students like videogames and thinks “Hmm, students are very into this “video game” thing. If it didn’t exist we would have to invent it! Well, let’s get some of that student money!”

“We should have a ‘game program’. But we don’t have money for that. So let’s hire someone who can teach courses on that videogame thing and call it a program.”

After asking a few people, including his grandson, who knows everything about videogames, he posts the following ad:

Associate or Assistant Professor, Game Design

  • Requirements
    • PhD, Computer Science or similar field
    • AAA experience, having shipped a title at least.
    • Teaching experience
  • Required Skills:
    • AI Programming
    • Graphics programming
    • Physics
    • Proficiency in 3D engines (Unity, Unreal)
    • Level design
    • Experience in online games / networks / social games
    • 3D modeling, usually Maya
    • 3D animation
    • Prototyping

Job requirements include teaching 4 courses per semester, student advising, academic service, and whatever else the dean thinks appropriate. Compensation: not very good.

By the way, this ad is a conflation of some real job postings, by the way, and not much of an exaggeration.

You know who this ad wants to hire?

A unicorn.

One person who has endured both the videogame industry and gone through the pains of getting a PhD. That takes some guts.

I know plenty of people who’d be great game professors, but they see this ad and they are terrified and don’t apply. The laundry list of required skills is intimidating, when those are things that are separate specialities, particularly in the AAA industry.

But this is not the worst problem.

The position is advertised as “Game design”, because it’s what sounds cool and what the students want, when what is listed here really refers to “game programming” and “technical art”. Of the skills listed, only Level Design and Prototyping are things that a game designer usually does. There are missing things like:

There are missing things like:

  • game theory
  • systems design
  • statistics
  • puzzle design
  • storytelling
  • playtesting

The ad is also implying that all that one needs to know to design games is using technology. Which is not the point for several reasons. As I just said, the skills described are not really all game design.

First of all, there are other disciplines that are routinely left out, for example:

a) Audio Design

Why do these game ads always forget sound and music? Audio makes your game come to life! And no, slapping some mp3s from creative commons sites is not audio design.

b) Production

We need to teach production! Project management is an essential skill to have in life, and essential to videogames.

Students will make their games as they do the rest of their homework: doing things at the last minute, crunching, not getting much sleep, not testing their games, let alone iterating. The result is that when they go into the real world making games, they think that’s how you make games.

This is the source of a lot of problems in the industry: poor work / life balance, crunch and overtime are the norm, crappy games that are released because they really had so ship. There are companies that release successful games and have to close because the millions they made selling the game can’t pay the years of fooling until they got started with their game. Those developers usually make games as if they were still in their college dorms. By not teaching things like scoping, scheduling, cutting features, iterating, we’re perpetuating some of the worst vices of the videogame industry.

Requiring a computer science PhD (or related field) is a further issue. It’s really unlikely that any women will apply for this job. Today, only 13% of Computer Science graduates are female. Only 11% of game designers in the industry are women. What is worse, only 3% of programmers in the games industry are female (source) Never mind if the ad says it’s an “equal opportunity” institution–with a PhD in computer science *plus* industry experience, the final hire will probably be a man.

We need more women making games, and female instructors are a way to encourage women to enroll in game courses. The requirements in the ad are not helping to do this.

By the way, having a computer design degree does not mean you can design games. You don’t need technology to design games. You don’t have to have a computer science degree to implement videogames, although it does give you some advantage.

Here are some game designers, with plenty of teaching experience, who would make a fantastic hire for a “game design” position:

  • Coleen Macklin: Professor, Parsons The New School for Design: BFA Media Arts
  • John Sharp, Associate Professor of Games and Learning at Parsons The New School for Design: AB, MA, PhD History of Art
  • Brenda Romero, Visiting Designer at UC Santa Cruz: BS Media and Communications
  • Brian Moriarty, Professor of Practice in Game design at Worcester Polytechnic: BA English
  • Tracy Fullerton Chair, USC Interactive Media and Games Division, School of Cinematic Arts: BA, Theater Arts, English Literature; MFA, Cinematic Arts
  • Frank Lantz , Director, NYU Game Center: BFA Studio Art (Painting)
  • Eric Zimmerman, Instructor, NYU Game Center: BFA Painting, MFA Art & Technology
  • Lee Sheldon, Associate Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: BFA, Directing (Theatre); MFA, Directing (Film).

These people are top of the crop, they are the people that people go to GDC to listen to and learn from. One of them is in part of the advisory committee of the Game Education Summit at GDC.

None of these people would be qualified for the “game design” position in the ad. Only of one them has a PhD, and only a couple have worked in AAA.

Colleen Macklin and John Sharp, in their GDC Education Summit keynote, stated that games and play are liberal arts. But the ad is chasing away people who have a background in art and the humanities. Videogames are not only the result of technology, they are a human activity. You need to understand humans, as well as computers, to make videogames. There are of course some computer scientists who are also game designers and artists (Michael Mateas at UCSC, Andy Nealen at NYU Poly, Fox Harrell and Nick Montfort at MIT).

But the list of qualifications and skills does not mention any skills or qualifications that have anything to do with art. You know how we can prove that games are art? By having actual artists to teach game design, artists and humanists to groom students to be creative and innovative by understanding games as an artistic expression.

So these are all the implications of that job ad that our friend the school dean posted because he wanted to have a “videogame program” and make some profit from it.

Since he will not find a unicorn, he’ll hire whoever can convince him he’s adequately qualified. Chances are the teacher will do his best, struggle with little resources, and teach something half-decent with in the constraits.

The students keep signing up for courses, the dean will just keep one or two overworked instructors and say they have a “game program.” This is not the games education that we want.

The dean is old and senile, so we have to tell him that game education can be more things than a “game program.” One can have games courses that are part of the curriculum, as a way to introduce games. It can be in the department of computer science, or literature, or history of art, or sociology. Just find what fits in your curriculum, to expand and enrich it rather than just cashing in.

For example, the previous ad can be presented as a “Game Programming” position in computer science. That’s fine! (although the skills should be preferred rather than required)

If the goal is to hire someone to teach game design, here’s another job ad that gets it right. It is also based on actual postings.

Game Design Professor

  • Preferred Requirements
    • Terminal degree (PhD or MFA)
    • Creative leadership
    • Track record of shipped games (commercial / academic / non-profit; digital or non-digital)
    • An artistic track record or background
  • Preferred Skills:
    • Game theory
    • Systems design
    • Statistics
    • Level design
    • Puzzle design
    • Storytelling
    • Playtesting
    • Prototyping (paper and digital)

If the dean wants a game program, then the school has to make a real investment, not a cheap cash in. Two teachers are not a games program, it’s two very overworked people.

A program needs the equivalent of an RPG party, professors with complementary knowledge, so they can teach production, art, audio. The party should also include someone from game studies who can teach students learn to think critically about their work, relate games to other game forms, appreciate the beauty of the medium.

And, hey, if the deans throws in some incentives for these professors to do research, they can even bring in grant money. How about that?

There are many ways to create a game curriculum, but the exclusive focus on technology is a mistake. Plus thinking that one or two people make a program is a mistake. Overworked teachers can only teach students to be overworked themselves. A team of teachers tells students that one needs to work together to make games, and provides different perspectives on what games are and what they coud. Otherwise, we are teaching students work themselves to death making games rather than making games as a way of life.